[DWJ] other things

Minnow minnow at belfry.org.uk
Thu Aug 7 09:32:22 EDT 2008

A long time ago I wrote a careful answer to a post of Colin's and left it
to simmer for a day or two so I could re-read it and check that it said
whjat I meant.  Then I went off to Finland and forgot about it.  Maybe
it'll get some others of the rather empty list arguing, so I'll post it
now!  ;-)

>Minnow wrote:
>> I hav herd yu argyu for fonetik.  It is klerer, I am told.  Lyk ITA.
>I don't think you have. I feel sure I should remember having argued from
>such an uncharacteristic position. I may have argued that if some people
>want to write phonetically I see no reason to censure them, but that is
>a very different thing.

I have no objection to people wanting to write in the ITA; I just won't
read it if I can't easily work out what they are on about.  Seems fair to
me; I don't read Finnish either, after all, nor expect Finns to read
English.  (But they all seem to, and many of them shame me by speaking it
as well as or better than I do!)

>>>>> Now Minnow will probably spit pebbles at me.
>>>> Too much like hard work, dear boy.  I've just bought a house and cannot
>>>> away with your bumble-bees.
>>> A house? I wish you well to wear it.
>> Why thank you!
>> It does have a swimming-pool... but if there is waterweed in that, there is
>> a problem with the filter, so I shall have to confine myself to the pond --
>> with frog, I am told, but I expect I can come to some sort of amphibious
>> treaty with the creature.
>Mutual respect and non-interference.

That's fine, but how mutual is a frog going to be about it?  (Or as it now
seems, either of the frogs?)

> From other mails:

I'm adding some little arrows, because you copy-and-pasted without them or
something and it might be hard to tell who is saying what if I don't make a
distinction.  The bits I wrote have two little arrows at the front of each
line, below.

>>Grammar is not a matter of life and death if it is messed with, would be
>>the argument here (I read your post out to DWJ on the phone, and she
>>laughed delightedly and then said 'yes but' because she has met this: one
>>of her sons is on the arts side, another on the maths).  If someone tampers
>>with the laws of physics, thinking that precision doesn't matter, or uses
>>centimetres instead of inches in their calculations for instance, the
>>effect can be literally fatal: the concrete mixed to the wrong
>>specifications makes the house fall down, the train comes off the wonky
>>rails at speed, or the comms for the space project don't work, or whatever
>>else.  Nobody is yet reported as having had a fatal stroke when faced with
>>a wilfully bad bit of grammar: if they did, they died before they could say

>Well, sometimes it can be, as Aimee pointed out. But generally speaking,
>ambiguity is created not by not following the 'rules' but by, well,
>being ambiguous. Following the rules of prescriptive grammar is neither
>necessary nor sufficient for clarity. (Aimee's example is to do with a
>failure to use punctuation to represent the rhythms and cadences of
>speech: I suspect that people who have difficulty with punctuation have
>been subject to teaching by rules, rather than by speaking aloud and
>choosing their punctuation to reflect how they speak. I have no direct
>evidence for this conclusion, however).

I think I may want to make some sort of distinction between 'proscriptive'
as in 'you ought not to do that' and oh, I don't know, 'prescriptive' as in
'it works better if you do this'.  I don't generally see a prescription as
being a prohibition, rather a recommendation.

I would also say that a lot of language as she is spoke is a matter of
convention: things like the order in which it is usual to say 'the large
round red blob' rather than 'the red round large blob' unless there is a
reason (to make the point that it is importantly a red, or a large, or a
round blob rather then a blue or a small or an oval one), or using a
quotation-phrase like 'as she is spoke' rather than the more usual 'as it
is spoken'.  This is not 'taught at school' as a rule, but boy does it jump
out and bite the reader/listener if it is deviated from.  (Small prize for
anyone working that sentence so that it doesn't end in 'from' and still
makes sense?)

>>I have never been able to understand why if the one matters, the other

>I'm not quite sure what the one and the other were in this.

Sciences and arts, roughly speaking, I think.

>I'm suggesting that following the rules of prescriptive grammar are
>approximately as important as following the rules of dress, or cookery -
>but my observation is that many people make them much more so.

So for instance 'following... are' is seen as more of a solecism than
adding a pink spotted bow-tie to formal funeral attire, or a dash of
cinnamon to a dish.  :-)  And maybe they (or it) are (or is) so seen; and
if what is in question is something related to language, as opposed to
clothing or cookery, it should be?

>I absolutely agree with you about what you call fuzzy thinking. Something
>that gets me even hotter under the collar than insistence on grammatical
>norms is the uncritical thinking that is often seen in round-robins and

Also the excluded middle.  Let's not get into that one!  We agree, I think.

>>There are however circumstances in which the correction of an error of this
>>sort is not simple bad manners, but the correction of somebody having
>>written something that is the opposite of what s/he meant, or that is
>>confusing to the point at which his/her argument is distorted.

>Accepted. But as I indicated above, many (most?) such errors do not leave
>you in such confusion, and conversely some perfectly grammatical
>paragraphs do engender just such confusion (see the parallel discussion on
>academics, he said, casting nasturtiums). This argument is often trotted
>out to rationalise people's insistence on prescriptive grammar and
>spelling, and it is mostly specious.

I do not give one single damn about the actuality of say a split
infinitive, so long as it doesn't make the meaning unclear.  I do mind it
if someone whose livelihood is writing writes in a way that makes the
reader need to go back and re-read a sentence to work out what the author
is getting at in that sentence, or (for example) who is the actor and who
the actee (and here I am avoiding 'subject' and 'object' because I have
encountered 'subject' as being 'one who is subjected to the act' rather
than 'one acting').

>>I am not sure I can accept that fully, because eg mathematics, carpentry,
>>scuba-diving, are all things that require to be *taught* to almost every
>>human being who wishes to deal with them: very few infants have any of
>>these by 'instinct' or 'reflex', all are learned skills.

>Indeed. But language is something that every human does share - and on
>which many people believe themselves qualified to judge everybody else.

People *do* judge everyone else, all the time about everything, and believe
they are qualified to do so (and profoundly pity anyone who 'doesn't have
any judgement', quite often)[1].  deborah has pointed out that in some
circles, individuals are judged extensively by their mode of dress; in some
the ownership of money or possessions or the type of possessions is a prime
criterion for judgement; in some by the preferred recreation; in some it is
accent or the colour of skin or any one of dozens of other things, many of
them not things that can be altered by the individual judged by them.  And
everyone feels qualified to judge every other person s/he encounters, by
any criteria selected.  The thing I feel important here is whether the
criteria selected are relevant to the point of the judgement.  For
instance, whether someone stammers or not is nothing whatever to do with
his or her ability or suitability to design a necklace, but a lot to do
with his or her ability or suitability to record the audiotape of a book...
And someone who can't spell to save his or her life is not the ideal
person to compile a dictionary, I wouldn't have thought.  Nor is an
anumerate the person to choose as an engineer, probably; and good
programming requires precise use of language, doesn't it?

>>Is it acceptable to judge the worth of a mathematician *as a mathematician*
>>by whether s/he habitually misuses the 'punctuation' of maths by carelessly
>>applying the wrong punctuation in reasoning, as it might be the brackets
>>that have an accepted 'coded meaning' in any equation, or the + and -
>>signs?  Is it acceptable to judge the worth of a carpenter *as a carpenter*
>>by whether s/he uses a chisel for inserting a screw or tries to shape wood
>>using a screwdriver?  A diver *as a diver* by whether s/he breathes in
>>through his/her nose and out through his/her mouth rather than vice versa?

>Of course not. But I didn't think that that was the issue before us.

It is to a certain extent, because I was thinking about not the everyday
use of the language as a mode of spoken communication, but the use of that
language written down.  We all *know* that in speech, one doesn't need
smileys because the tone of voice says 'I am smiling' even if the face is
not visible; in an email, some way to indicate 'that was a joke' is needed,
lest offence be given by mistake.  Punctuation in writing fulfils some of
that clarifying function.

>>I would judge someone whose business is the use of words (a journalist, an
>>author, a speaker, an advertising-copy writer) in order to make a point or
>>persuade an audience on his or her use of words, by that person's use of
>>words.  How else is s/he to be judged, ultimately, in relation to his/her
(and that's the follow-up to the previous paragraph)

>Absolutely. And conformance to norms - or departure from them - is one of
>the tools in the wordsmith's toolbox. Anybody who is using words
>professionally or for influence would be very well advised to understand
>the accepted rules for using them. But even here, there is more than one
>set: in some company, speaking the way you were taught in school will risk
>losing your audience (not, probably, by confusing them, but by alienating

Yes, true.  And some people are better at getting this right than others,
just as some are better at dress-design or mathematics or cookery than

BUT nobody argues that a cack-handed designer or poor cook is *as entitled
to be considered right about that business* as someone who is good at the
job, whereas someone who can't spell is deemed for some reason to have as
good an opinion in the matter as someone who can, or at least to be treated
as though they were as good at it as someone who could.

>>It's your perception, here, rather than a universal rule, as to the
>>importance or otherwise of getting the basic building-blocks of any
>>particular matter appropriately deployed.  The precise cut of a jacket is
>>not important in particular to you or to me, though I presume that it is to
>>a fashion pundit, just as different authors have different ways of using
>>words (styles) and this may matter to you and me but may not to a
>>sports-editor; wearing that jacket on your upper half rather than on your
>>nether limbs probably *is* important to all four postulated parties here.
>>let alone to the wearer when s/he tried to walk.  (And Pat Silver is so
>>allergic to cinnamon that a very small amount makes her vomit painfully for
>>as much as twenty-four hours: in her case you've used a really bad example,
>>though I do take your point as a general rule.)

Sorry: for 'your' read 'the individual's' above.  That's one of the
linguistic hassles I fall into, that the second person looks as if I mean
'you personally' whereas it's just me trying to avoid saying 'one' all the
time instead.  Bah.

>No, I think it's a good example. To Pat this is a crucial distinction,
>while to others it may not be noticeable until their attention is drawn to

Here we'll have to agree to differ.  Not poisoning even one person seems to
me to be important, more so than sartorial bloopers or a misplaced
semi-colon or two.

>>If the language is important enough for someone to be devoting their life
>>to it *and getting it wrong* (ie to failing to make their point, failing to
>>persuade, failing to produce a reasoned argument) then it ought to be
>>important enough for them to find out and follow the presently-accepted
>>general rules of their chosen trade, I would have thought.  Just as
>>important, surely, as for a chef to find out how not to use inappropriate
>>spices and herbs that spoil the dish for the eater.

>I agree that they would be well-advised to find out the presently-accepted
>rules. I don't agree that they will necessarily follow them.

That is a matter of their will, not their ability, though.  Somebody can
choose to write stream-of-consciousness, which 'writes awful easy and it
reads awful hard', and still be quite able to write a comprehensible
business letter, after all.

>However, I accept your general point: I did not have in mind people for
>whom language is the tool of their trade, and was certainly not referring
>to deliberate flouting of rules.

Fair enough.  I was and am, I think.

Mind you, I don't know that the line between 'deliberately' and 'stupidly'
(as opposed to 'ignorantly') is that fine.  It isn't big or clever to
behave about writing the language as though one were a fourth-form kid
abusing it as a code in order to hide from the grown-ups, really.


[1] for instance, I abreacte to people who try to instruct me that poor use
of language doesn't matter, and react favourably to people who agree with
me that it is in fact a thing of some importance (though not necessarily of
paramount importance).  That's a judgement, right?  And I feel entitled to
make it, just as I will use my judgement to temper my behaviour and not
talk about my pet academic subject to someone who has no interest in it.  I
don't expect the person using the language badly to *do* anything about it,
nor even say that they should, but I am absolutely certain to have that
judgement as part of my total picture of the person.  ('Nice bloke, trust
him with my wallet, makes a brilliant omelette, can't spell for toffee, I
wish he'd let someone else choose his shirts for him, and if I ever need
advice about pharmacy or taxidermy I'll ask him because he really knows a
lot about those.')

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